I first came across filmmaker Carol Morley only last year, when indie flick The Falling cast her into the mainstream spotlight. Anti-buff that I am, I was lured in by (a) the film’s beautiful poster, which was rare for not being dominated by a Hollywood A-lister, and (b) its title, which reminded me of some kind of nondescript indie band – the lovechild of The Calling and The Fall, perhaps?
The Falling tells the story of a fainting epidemic at an all-girls school in 1960s England. Various critics have commented on the debt it owes to Picnic at Hanging Rock – a film I first discovered at my own all-girls school at around the same time as studying the mass hysteria amongst the teenage girls of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – but Morley also acknowledges the influence of Grease and Saturday Night Fever: this is a film about the glory, as well as the savagery, of the adolescent experience. Like Morley’s other films, The Falling refuses to be neatly classified; at times it is a coming-of-age drama complete with family strife and sexual awakening, but at others its sylvan surrealism and simmering psychological tension border on horror.
Morley is concerned to cast a light on the female experience and work with a strong set of female collaborators. She lists Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star) amongst her inspirations, has worked repeatedly with ‘muse’ Maxine Peake, and for The Falling teamed up with singer-songwriter Tracey Thorn (Everything But The Girl), whom she met after Thorn praised her films on Twitter. Her perennial collaborator is also her long-term partner, producer Cairo Cannon.
Having a strong female presence on set is a political act. It changes the very nature of what a film set has come to be.
On the face of it, Carol Morley is an unlikely success story. When she was only 11, her father went missing after dropping her off at school on the first day of his new job. He was found dead a week later, having committed suicide after a long struggle with depression. The young Carol left school at 16 and drank away the remainder of her teenage years, with no job and no particular purpose except oblivion. She only found film as an outlet in her twenties, and went to study as a mature student at Central Saint Martins. In her autobiographical novel, 7 Miles Out, she admits the role her father’s suicide had in propelling her towards film:
I think of film-making as a form of making dreams come to life; of asking questions too difficult to ask in real life; of constructing something meaningful out of messy and difficult experiences… I know that my father’s suicide gave me the desire to truly examine what it is to live, to find a way to try and make sense of the world and resurrect the lost. It is, without a doubt, why I became a film-maker.
Morley as filmmaker is part psychoanalyst, part detective and part social historian: she pieces together the lives of those who have no voice to tell their own stories. Her breakthrough film, Dreams of a Life, was the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, who in 2003 died in her flat at the age of 38, seemingly of natural causes. Her remains weren’t discovered until over two years later, when bailiffs broke in to repossess the property on grounds of unpaid rent. Vincent’s life was a negative space – the perfect blank canvas for a filmmaker – but Carol Morley went back to find people who had known her and find out who she was, creating a haunting yet incredibly humane piece.
Morley’s early documentary The Alcohol Years was a self-portrait using this same method of gleaning: she put an advert in a Manchester newspaper (‘Did you know Carol Morley?’) and interviewed respondents who had known her between the ages of 16 and 21, during what she describes as her ‘lost period’. The views she garnered were remarkably frank; one interviewee admitted: ‘I think everybody hated you, Carol, to a certain degree. You were a completely manipulative person.’
Morley has clearly changed since those days, yet she has not lost her bite; indeed, her desire to give a voice to the dispossessed is her own quiet form of protest, of avoiding the inertia of which the young protagonist Lydia Lamont (Maisie Williams) accuses her teachers in The Falling: “To be free, you must be conscious. Kill the system. It’s killing you!”
My own teenage years were nothing like the rage-fuelled haze of The Alcohol Years – in fact I remember everything, often in painfully minute detail – and yet Morley’s story of triumph in the face of adversity is the kind that can resonate with everyone, even while she refuses to go after big-budget blockbusters. Rather than telling the stories of fantasy superheroes or the supposed great men of history, Carol Morley makes heroes of ordinary people, and in her careful hands the interviewee who compares the death of Joyce Vincent to that of JFK seems, well, not too far off the mark.
References include: Bradshaw, P., ‘Carol Morley and Tracey Thorn: “Girls’ schools? They’re a hotpot of urges”’, The Guardian, 21 April 2015 // Bradshaw, P., ‘The Falling review – Carol Morley’s masterful followup to Dreams of a Life’, The Guardian, 10 October 2014 // Carpenter, L., ‘Carol Morley interview: “I like to give some light to the dark side of life”’, The Telegraph, 11 April 2015 // Dreams of a Life (2011) (DVD), directed by Carol Morley, London: Channel Four Television/The British Film Institute // Johnston, T., ‘The Falling’ (review), Time Out London, 20 April 2015 // Kermode, M., ‘The Falling review – swoon with a view’, The Observer, 26 April 2015 // Macnab, G., ‘The Falling, film review: Maisie Williams is top of the class for melodrama and mystery’, The Independent, 23 April 2015. ©The Heroine Collective 2015 – Present, All Rights Reserved.